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USF St. Petersburg teams up with hospitality leaders to launch leadership program

Megan Holmes



City of St. Pete Flickr

Click the arrow above to listen to the full conversation between St. Pete Catalyst publisher Joe Hamilton, program director Janet Keeler, 3 Daughter’s Brewing Company’s Mike Harting, USF’s Frank Biafora, and Original Hooters Group’s Neil Kiefer.

(Left to right): Kiefer, Harting, Biafora, Keeler

The University of South Florida St. Petersburg and hospitality leaders from throughout the city are teaming up to fill in a longstanding skills gap in one of St. Petersburg’s largest industries — hospitality. 

The University’s Bishop Center for Ethical Leadership and Office of Corporate Training & Professional Education, joined by guest industry leaders like Ciccio Cali’s Jeff Gigante and serial restaurateur Steve Westphal, will launch the Hospitality Leadership Program (HLP), an industry-designed professional training program at a reveal party Monday night at the Morean Arts Center in St. Petersburg.

Frank Biafora explained that the program came from multiple continued conversations between local hospitality leaders and the university over problems faced by the industry, including rapid turnover, lack of retention and rising on-boarding costs.

“Everyone’s aware that there are already programs at the master’s level and the bachelor’s level. But there was a hope that the university could create a certificate program or a training program that would be relatively rapid, that would meet the lifestyle of those going through the program,” Biafora explained. “So we’ve done that.”

The program, which will launch in January, is 16 weeks, fully online, and ripe with mentorship opportunities with some of St. Pete’s most respected hospitality leaders. Each of the modules in the curriculum was developed and will be taught by industry experts themselves. The program addresses what Mike Harting of 3 Daughters Brewing believes is a serious education gap in the industry. 

“Graduating college with a degree in management doesn’t really get you ready for restaurant management. A lot of the restaurants out there need better pathways to leadership so that was the genesis for this,” Harting said.

“Restaurant management is more like being a kindergarten teacher sometimes. Business curriculum at any solid university gets you ready for finance and accounting, how to run a traditional business and become a CEO. To be a great GM you need to have those skills but you also have to be able to run a shift, and you also have to be able to manage people that are 18-25.”

Before founding 3 Daughters Brewing, Harting previously operated 18 Outback Steakhouse restaurants with a staff of over 1,400 employees and 65 managers. It was the general manager, according to Harting, who created the culture and ultimately decided the success of each restaurant.

“They were all exactly the same 6,128 square feet,” Harting said. “They couldn’t have been any more different. The culture of that restaurant and the results of that restaurant were completely dependent on the one person that was running that particular unit.”

Harting and like-minded hospitality leaders including Neil Kiefer of Original Hooters Group were among those who began talks with the university. Kiefer believes the program could help attract workers to the hospitality space who might have ended up in a different industry. Kiefer is particularly concerned with what he called a “tremendous void” of workers for the hospitality industry in a time of very low unemployment. 

Janet Keeler, director of the new Hospitality Leadership Program, intends to meet students where they are both with the curriculum and tone of the program. Whether they are in a restaurant, hair salon, resort or other hospitality setting, Keeler is interested in helping students understand themselves and how they work in the context of their environment. Instead of focusing on academia, Keeler hopes students in the program will feel the curriculum’s immediately relevancy to their work lives and apply what they’re learning as they go, identifying issues and pain points in their own organization.

To learn more about HLP, visit its dedicated website here. Find details and RSVP for the Sept. 30 reveal party at the Morean Arts Center here. 



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